Mendocino County Superior Court Judge David Nelson on Monday sentenced Gerardo Soto-Gonzales, 33, a Mexican national with a Clearlake residence, to four years in state prison for arson of forestland.
Soto-Gonzales pleaded guilty to setting an arson fire while firefighters were already responding to a major fire east of Willits in August 2008. The charges for the two other fires set near the same location were dropped with the agreement they could be considered by the judge to determine Soto-Gonzales' sentence.
In August, CalFire helicopter pilots spotted Soto-Gonzales setting fires while they were ferrying crews and dropping water on the Island Fire located northwest of Lake Pillsbury near Big Signal peak. The CalFire pilots observed a Hispanic male in camouflage gear kneeling down and lighting a brush pile on fire. The pilots used the force of the air driven by the helicopter rotor to push Soto-Gonzales down, allowing the pilots later to identify him.
A fire crew had to be rescued and flown to a safe area after the arson-set fires threatened their safety. Firefighting efforts were then suspended in the immediate area to allow federal, state and county law enforcement officers to apprehend the arsonist. Soto-Gonzales was arrested on a forest road near the fire's origin.
Soto-Gonzales told arresting officers he was a Mexican national and admitted to starting the fires. He had a lighter in his possession when arrested and other evidence linking him to marijuana cultivation. When arrested, he admitted to officers he was one of a group growing pot in the area.
Investigators estimate the three arson fires burned 45.2 acres of private forestland before being extinguished at a cost of $175,000.
The US Forest Service hired a number of officers in 2007 specifically to target marijuana eradication on public lands. In the week prior to the arson, the officers conducted a series of raids on nearby gardens.
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